It’s hardly Sundance, but the Beijing International Film Festival, now in its sixth year, is welcomed by the city’s cinephiles as a chance to see arthouse and older films that would otherwise never be showing on large screens here. That said, many of the films won’t be showing in their complete form, as the state-run festival officially adheres to the same censorship standards that apply to national releases.
‘[Government organisers] tend to have their own process, which is basically watch the movies, and if there is any kind of content they could possibly question, they’re going to censor something,’ says the head of another annual film festival in China, who agreed to talk to us on the condition of anonymity. ‘There aren’t any really hard rules about what content is objectionable, just anything that seems obvious... The purpose is just to justify the process, censoring for the purpose of making oneself look more intelligent.’
The unclear standards for cutting films has led to uncertainty about content in the festival. Festival organisers ‘might be told by SARFT [the Government organ responsible for film] to censor a movie, tell them that they did, and then not censor it. I know for a fact they did this last year with a movie or two,’ our source says.
In this way, the Beijing International Film Festival is like a microcosm of the larger Chinese film market, where opaque censorship standards mean Chinese viewers may be unaware that the films they’re seeing have been modified. With that in mind, we’ve put together a list of recent international film releases that were tampered with for their China release.
Iron Man 3
Around four minutes of footage was added to Iron Man 3 for its China release. So what extra treats did we get? Well, there’s a Chinese doctor named Wu (no, not the guy with the Tardis, that’s Who). Dr Wu really enjoys Yili milk drinks, employs Chinese superstar Fan Bingbing as his nurse and met Tony Stark once. When Tony Stark gets injured, he comes to China – not exactly known for its medical tourism – to get shrapnel removed from his chest. Dr Wu and Fan Bingbing’s unnamed nurse remove the shrapnel. And that’s it. Chinese audiences were less than pleased with the hyped extra footage, but the film’s producer Marvel was most likely delighted that the joint venture with Chinese production company DMG Yinji, and the resultant extra footage for the China release, secured its distribution in the Chinese market.
James Bond may be a superspy adept at managing international politics, but even he couldn’t get the better of Chinese censors. The 2012 film Skyfall saw the character travel to Macau and Shanghai, which of course meant content that the film board felt needed to be cut. The killing of a Chinese security guard in Shanghai was edited out, but perhaps the craftiest thing was how a reference to prostitution in Macau was removed. The English dialogue remained intact, but the Chinese subtitles made no mention of the prostitution ring that was briefly discussed on screen, instead replacing it with a generic reference to organised crime. Sneaky.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character in the time travel thriller Looper is sure that he’s going to end up in France. ‘I’m from the future,’ another character tells him, ‘You’re going to China.’ Sure enough, he ends up in China. It’s not an accident. The filmmakers got Chinese funding because of it, and Chinese viewers got a longer version of a montage of the character’s life in Shanghai. It’s pretty surprising considering time travel movies are usually banned in China, plus the segment is about a foreigner who comes to China to do drugs and commit crimes. Missing from both versions are the parts where the protagonist has to go on visa runs and spend hours figuring out how to pay his electricity bill.
21 & Over
21 & Over was one of the many raunchy party comedies that sprung up post-Hangover, with a message that basically boils down to ‘Tits and beer! Woooo!’ In China, however, the movie’s story of a pair of college bros taking their straight-laced Chinese American pal for a debauched night out was given a pair of bookend sequences that completely changed the moral of the film. As director Jon Lucas explained to the Los Angeles Times, the movie becomes ‘a sort of story about a boy who leaves China, gets corrupted by our wayward, Western partying ways and goes back to China a better person.’ Because if there’s anything audiences want out of movies like this, it’s a positive moral.
The Karate Kid
First things first: The Karate Kid, a movie about an American kid who learns kung fu from kung fu master Jackie Chan in China, the home of kung fu, is actually called The Kung Fu Dream in Chinese, so it scores one point over the reductive American version, named after a Japanese martial art. That said, the Chinese version also cuts much of the fight footage, making it so that while the protagonist is clearly fighting back against bullying in the American cut, here he just seems to be acting out. Similarly, a tyrannical kung fu teacher was re-cut into merely a strict coach in the Chinese version. A kiss between the hero and his Chinese love interest was also cut, but considering they’re both 12 years old, that was probably for the best.